When parent groups and schools work together to build a strong sense of community, everyone benefits. Parents feel welcome and are more likely to take a more active role in their child’s education. Teachers feel appreciated. And research shows that kids attending schools with a strong community are more likely to be academically motivated. It’s not always easy, but it’s worthwhile. Here’s what some schools are doing to create camaraderie, engagement, and a sense of belonging.
Parents new to a school sometimes don’t know how to reach out and meet other parents, and parent group leaders can play an important role in setting a warm and inclusive tone. The Central Christian School Parent Teacher Fellowship in Hutchinson, Kan., promotes parent bonding with quarterly coffee gatherings that include snacks and icebreaker games.
The PTF provides pastries, fruit, and breakfast casseroles and uses simple icebreakers to draw people out. PTF president Janice Miller says that by the end of previous coffee gatherings, “some pretty funny stories came up through the icebreaker games, and parents were much more relaxed.” The coffee gatherings are going strong this year under Miller’s leadership. Besides advertising the events well, Miller says using structured activities to promote interaction is key to creating a welcoming group environment.
Using multiple methods to communicate with school families can make a PTO more visible and feel more accessible to parents. At Greenfield Elementary, a small New Hampshire school, the PTO improved communication by creating a website and overhauling its Facebook page, the result of which was a 250 percent increase in “likes.” The group also started publishing key activities in local and regional newspapers and using a website to coordinate volunteers. In addition, the PTO now stores files in the cloud to enable collaboration among members and smoother transitions at the end of each school year.
“I think our biggest learning is to ask how parents want to be communicated with and really listen to their response,” says PTO president Angelique Moon.
Parent surveys showed Facebook as the favored means of communication, but parents specifically wanted paper copies of PTO meeting minutes. As a result, the group provides both. Moon says the PTO continues to tweak communication for improved results.
Honor Different Cultures
Many groups strive to build a sense of community by honoring the cultures of families in the school. The Harrington Elementary PTO in Chelmsford, Mass., held a heritage festival for the first time last year that proved popular with families and teachers alike. Justyn Thoren, 2013-14 PTO president, had noticed that of the school’s 500 families, less than half were attending PTO events. She wanted to change that, so with feedback from the school community the PTO came up with a new event, the heritage festival.
To invite participation, the festival committee asked parents to make and donate their favorite appetizer. Parents were also invited to set up a table display for their country of origin or the region of the United States they had moved from. Participants brought in traditional clothing, handouts, games, or some other interactive element to represent a variety of countries, including Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, Bosnia, China, India, Scotland, Canada, and South Korea. The PTO also invited community vendors who could provide an international connection. A real estate agent created a display of homes from around the world, a music academy brought in drums, and a tae kwon do academy performed demonstrations.
The evening featured dance performances, a dad’s Celtic band, international stories read by the school librarian between performances, and simple passports for students to have stamped at the tables. Teachers got involved by having their classes work on curricular projects related to heritage, which were displayed around the school.
Part of the reason the festival was so successful was that it was new. But it also was inclusive, connecting families and teachers through the curriculum, international cultures, the arts, and the community. “The outcome was people felt very welcome,” Thoren says. “We sent a personal invitation to every teacher to cordially invite them, and many showed up.”
The food contributions were a huge hit, broadening the definition of acceptable treats. “We had many parents who had never baked for a bake sale, and this event allowed them to bring in something meaningful to their family,” Thoren says.
Connect Families From Different Groups
Bringing together different groups for a common project can also help build a sense of community. Barb Owens, president of the Shuksan Middle School PTA in Bellingham, Wash., recommends looking beyond the usual fundraiser or family event to something new that will bring in families who might not otherwise participate.
At Shuksan Middle School, which has many Spanish-speaking families, that event has been a tamale fundraiser. The event was spearheaded two years ago by the new principal, Jay Jordan, and the PTA to raise money and to be more inclusive of Latino culture.
This year, families and staff will come together one Saturday in April to make hundreds of tamales in the school kitchen to freeze and sell to families, staff, and community members who preordered them. The PTA pays for a district kitchen staff member to oversee production according to health department codes. Parents loan their tamale steamers, and everyone works together with the assistance of on-site staff interpreters. Jordan has been pleased with the event’s success in bringing families together. “It’s a unique event that’s more important than the money it’s raising,” he says.
Increase Community Partnerships
When a school is new and is looking to build a sense of community, partnerships are invaluable. Berewick Elementary in Charlotte, N.C., opened in 2008 and wanted to promote parent group membership, volunteer participation, and community partnerships. Three years ago, the PTO obtained a Lowe’s Toolbox for Education grant to fund a community garden and outdoor classroom. With the help of Lowe’s staff, college students, and families, the school built six raised beds, one per grade, which the kids maintain during the school year.
Meeting once a month on Saturdays, students and parents plant or tend vegetables to donate a percentage to Friendship Trays, Charlotte’s meals on wheels program, as well as the food bank. Because a high percentage of Berewick’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, some kids benefit directly from food bank donations. Everyone benefits from giving back, as well as from the school’s new partnerships and the inclusive culture around growing vegetables.